MANY LETTERS come to the columnist. Some are written with profane anger, some with profound pain and sadness. Some are thoroughly silly ("It's a good thing you liberals weren't in charge of this country during World War II!") or sentimental ("I wish they'd bring back Bowling For Dollars!").
Some drip with outrage, or with sarcasm, or with sticky substances. Some arrive with special requests -- that the columnist leave town, or that the columnist attend a poker game in a Catonsville toolshed, or that the columnist help identify the certain Szechuan restaurant Elizabeth Large said was wonderful 12 years ago.
The columnist has been asked to publish lame poetry, to proofread novels, to help find toys for impoverished children and clothes for homeless men. He was asked repeatedly to publish a recipe for spaghetti alla carbonara, and he has been asked countless times to visit "innocent" men in prison.
But this is the first time the columnist has been asked to help finance the pruning of disturbing trees by helicopter.
Unfortunately, the writer of this letter can only be identified by what the columnist assumes is the pseudonym he uses to sign e-mail -- Ernest DeLune. The columnist has been unable to find an Ernest DeLune in the metropolitan Baltimore area, and Mr. DeLune refuses to identify himself. ("I recommend a dM-itente," he wrote recently, "in which I will believe in your existence if you believe in mine.")
Be that as it may, we shall indulge him, even though this columnist avoids using precious newspaper space for the words -- that is, the letters -- of others.
Oddly, the columnist already feels a special bond with Mr. DeLune, in the way visitors to online chat rooms develop an affinity for each other.
More importantly, the columnist wishes from time to time, particularly in this season of light, for readers to look over his shoulder and appreciate the array of human story and desire that arrive in abundance on his desk.
This arrived on Thanksgiving Day:
"Dear Mr. Rodricks:
"I see several doctors at Green Spring Station for what I am told is an idiopathic, aberrant but well-insured psychosomatic malady. In other words, there is no pattern to my intermittent visions, but my team of doctors is happy to continue treating me as long as my insurers are happy to make my doctors happy.
"After my doctors' appointments, I wait for up to thirty minutes at the intersection of Falls and Joppa Roads. Only after a long wait is there a break in the traffic sufficient for my dash across the street to continue my walk home.
"During my wait, I have time to contemplate the beautiful tree line to the southwest. It rises some two hundred feet into the air, stark and noble in the fall; its top line dips and rises like a five-year stock market chart in an iffy economy. (I made up that phrase myself. I'm told by five of my seven doctors that it's quite clever. The other two made no comment, but I think one of the docs didn't understand the analogy due to a massive language barrier -- hers! That may explain the inordinate amount of time she spends every Tuesday examining my right leg and thocking my knee with a little hammer. ... I once passed out after a long session with her. You should have seen that bill. Four figures!)
"Anyway, my Monday 10 a.m. psychologist suggested that I take charge in controlling my ever-wobbly moods. That is why I am writing to you.
"Due to several recent disturbing incidents, the uneven tree line at Falls and Joppa has an amplifying, unsettling effect on my mood, and I have decided to 'take control.'
"I plan to rectify the aggravation by trimming the entire tree line into a nice, flat line. It is my hope that future contemplation of a flat tree line will have a settling effect on my mood. LET'S HOPE!
"On December 30, between the hours of 9 and 11 a.m., I plan to rent a helicopter pilot and helicopter, custom-fitted with a cutting mechanism, and I, or an agent of my choice, will trim the entire line of trees. (I am leaning toward an agent of my choice [because] flying is one of my 'issues.')
"Mr. Rodricks, this is an idea that is so brilliant that I consider it to be Performance Art. In fact, I hereby announce it is the first in hopefully an endless series of Performance Pruning Art. I figure the art angle will allow me to apply for grants.
"I currently have about $145 set aside for the project and I assume I will need more. I don't suppose you have a helicopter pilot license, do you? Now THAT would be a crazy coincidence and could save me a boatload of money!
"Please help me get this message out to your readers as a public service. I figure there are countless people whose mood is adversely affected by this tree line every day, and I'd like word to get out that help is on the way.
"Thank you for your time,
As much as he would like to help Mr. DeLune, the columnist has been handcuffed by Mr. DeLune's insistence on anonymity. Therefore, this emerging, compulsive obsessive pruning artist is on his own.
But the columnist will stake out the scene on the penultimate day of 2004, hopeful eyes scanning winter sky for a man dangling from a copter with a chain saw.